I am reluctant to write about why Roger Ebert’s death on April 4, 2013, felt like a brick to the heart. It was shocking to me when I heard the news. In order to explain why, I have to lay bare some intimate details about myself, which I would not do under normal circumstances. But I want to acknowledge what this Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic meant to me, so here goes:
I was standing outside the doors of Central Casting, the famed background actor agency in Burbank, California, when someone shouted, “Ebert died this morning … from cancer.” I was there, waiting in line, because earlier in the week I had registered as “an extra” and I wanted to take their introductory “101” class. But really I was there as an expression of how much I love movies.
I want to be in a movie — a great movie — before I die. Probabilistically the best chance I have of accomplishing this is by being in the scenery, maybe sitting behind the lead actors, or walking across the screen, or dare I dream it, dancing? So for spring break, I headed to Hollywood, to begin the first step in realizing an impossible dream. I mention this to help you understand that though I am very much a realist, I also engage in numerous flights of fancy and unrealistic fantasies. Normally I keep these thoughts to myself, because nothing ruins an illusion faster than explaining it to someone else. Yet the reality is that I do not live in the vicinity of Los Angeles, hence it is extremely unlikely that I would get cast in anything where I live. I also have a limited amount of free time, and a small wardrobe. Plus, I’m not a very good dancer. Needless to say, what I am is a dreamer, and I do believe there is a chance, however small, that it could happen to me. So I went to LA. The culmination of all of this would of course be that moment, someday, when I would get to review my movie, the movie I can be seen in, the one that will live on forever.
But as I was beginning to inch closer to making one elaborate fantasy come true, the news of Ebert’s death ended another one quite abruptly. Just two days prior, on April 2, Roger had posted an article on his website titled ” A Leave of Presence,” where he announced a recurrence of cancer and a change of schedule. In it he wrote, “I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review,” and he listed a number of other plans, including a Kickstarter campaign to bring back the TV show “At the Movies” and a documentary of him directed by Steve James. So you can understand why when I first heard that Ebert had died, I was extremely reluctant to believe it. I grasped onto the idea that maybe the person who announced it was confused by the April 2 post. Yes, it is clear that a fourth recurrence of cancer would mean a shorter life span. Fine, but by just one day? That doesn’t make sense; he had plans. There must be a mistake.
Eventually though, I was able to verify the news for myself. I logged on to my Twitter account, where Roger Ebert is the first entry — the first person I followed. Maybe at this point you can appreciate the disheartening disappointment I felt when I learned of his death. Now I will reveal what made me reluctant to write this piece: my fantasy about Ebert. Before I begin, I need to explain that he had a great love for jokes. As evidence, I offer the April 5, 2013 Carol Marin (Chicago Sun-Times) interview of Richard Roeper, Ebert’s TV co-host, who described Ebert as a man that “never met a joke he wouldn’t tell you more than seven times, and if you said ‘I’ve already heard it before,’ he’d say, ‘not this way you haven’t.'” For this reason it is not surprising that Ebert entered the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest every week for ninety-three weeks after he had won it, and his winning caption came after having entered it one hundred and seven times.
Although embarrassing, these then are the specifics of my elaborate fantasy: I began entering the Caption Contest myself and tweeting my entries to @ebertchicago. The hope was that one day Ebert would respond and I would get to ask him about a particular joke of his, which he starts to tell in his review of the 1998 movie Paulie. It goes like this, “A parrot has a memory that will only hold the last two things it has heard. A guy buys him, puts him by the front door and tests him. ‘One, two,’ the man says. ‘One, two,’ the parrot says. ‘Three,’ says the man. ‘Two, three,’ says the parrot. ‘Four,’ says the man. ‘Three, four,’ says the parrot. Then the guy shouts to his wife: ‘So long, honey, I’m going to the office!’ When the guy comes home, what does the parrot say?” This joke has become like a Zen koan for me, because I have no answer, at least not a funny one that makes sense. I was waiting to see him in person to ask him, and I imagined us sitting together on red velvety chairs having a long chat. And that is when he would recognize me as a kindred spirit, and we would begin a life-long correspondence that consisted of sharing jokes.
In spite of the details in my pipe dream, it didn’t come true. It never occurred to me that he could die, because Ebert has been a constant in my life. I grew up watching him on television and reading his reviews. I’ve read his books and listened to his talks. I’m so sad that he is gone. He leaves a definite hole in the routine of my life, and it is difficult to accept that kind of change. So I haven’t entered the Caption Contest since our last mutual entry, No. 374 from Paul Noth, which eerily enough depicts a man in a coffin. Ebert’s caption: “For burial, a companion coffin will facilitate when he takes it all with him.” Mine: “And the full buffet will be available when you work yourself to death.” It’s not great, but that’s all I have…
Well, not all exactly. Ebert leaves behind a trove of insight and wisdom that I cherish, of which the one I take closest to heart comes from his May 2, 2009 essay on death, Go Gentle Into That Good Night, where he writes that “we must try to contribute joy to the world.” This is why sometime in the future I will continue to enter the Caption Contest. I think the best way to honor someone is to remember and do what they loved. If I ever win it, which is another thrilling fantasy of mine, I will dedicate it to Mr. Roger Joseph Ebert, “film critic since time immemorial.”
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